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Transgender women aren’t ruining women’s sport

Annabel Mulliner looks into the debate around trans women in sport and looks at the facts behind the debate

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Image Credit: Transgender Pride Flag

A WHILE AGO, I WROTE a piece for Comment entitled ‘Feminism Needs To Accept the Trans Movement’. When this article was posted online, the first comment it was met with was “how about instead, you talk about what this nonsense is doing to women’s sport?” So, anonymous Facebook user, your wish is granted.

There’s a considerable amount of controversy surrounding trans women’s participation in women’s sports. This is centred around the fear that post-transition, trans women retain a physical advantage, owing to them having higher levels of testosterone. Women’s testosterone levels tend to fall between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/l, whereas men’s levels are typically between 7.7 and 29.4 nmol/l.

Since 2015, IOC guidelines allow any trans woman to compete without undergoing surgery, provided they have reduced their serum testosterone to 10 nmol/l for at least a year, but many female athletes don’t believe this is strict enough.

The activist group Fair Play for Women argue that there is “little science” behind the policy, as there is a “legacy effect” of testosterone, which gives an unfair strength advantage, even after hormone treatment. However, Beth Jones, a researcher from the University of Loughborough, highlights that “there is no research which has directly and consistently found transgender people to have an athletic advantage in sport.”

Given the paltry evidence for trans women having a competitive edge, and their low participation levels in sport anyway, it’s difficult to understand the proportion of the backlash against trans athletes.

Trans cyclist Rachel McKinnon faced death threats after winning her track world title last year, and has since responded to her critics, writing that “there is no debate to be had over whether trans women athletes have an unfair advantage: it’s clear that they don’t”. Indeed, since the IOC allowed trans women to openly compete in 2003, not a single trans athlete has ever even qualified for the Olympics. Trans women remain on the fringe of international sport, with success stories being few and far between. But wherever they do succeed, they are met with suspicion.

This suspicion is underpinned with the transphobic idea that trans women aren’t ‘real women’ but are in fact only masquerading as such in order to gain an advantage.

The idea that a cisgender man could transition purely to win at women’s sport has been suggested by several well-respected female athletes. Martina Navratilova, former world No.1 for Women’s Tennis, was criticised for suggesting that transgender athletes are cheats. But her apology was incredibly backhanded, explaining that “I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage.” The fact that Navratilova was formerly coached by transgender sportswoman Renee Richards adds further insult to this.

The idea that someone could, so casually and “cynically” transition purely for sporting success is not only naïve but inherently transphobic. In order to gain access to hormone therapy and other gender transitioning treatments, one must first be diagnosed with gender dysphoria – something which healthcare professionals don’t take lightly.

It’s difficult enough for an actual transgender person to convince a doctor that they need treatment, so it would be impossible for a cisgender man to fool a professional into treating him. Gender dysphoria is “the distress experienced by those whose gender identity feels at odds with aspects of their body and/or the social gender role assigned to them at birth”; clearly a condition that is not to be taken lightly. “They will want to see you for six to twelve months before they are willing to diagnose you,” says McKinnon. But often the wait is much longer if you include the long waiting list that transgender patients must endure before they even see a doctor.

My sister waited over two years from first seeing her GP to finally receiving a diagnosis and treatment. Medical and sporting professionals seem to share an attitude of utter disbelief towards transgender identity.

Of course, keeping women’s sport an even playing field is incredibly important. But the reality is that we have so few successful transgender women in sports that a competitive advantage can’t be proved in practice. If we bar transgender women from women’s sports, then where do we draw the line?

Cisgender athlete Caster Semenya has higher testosterone levels than most women, meaning that under World Athletics, formerly known as IAAF, rules she has DSD (differences in sexual development). She lost her legal case against the World Athletics last year, who ruled that she must reduce her testosterone for six months in order to continue competing in the 800m race.

This tribunal upheld a rule that discrimination in sport is legal, provided it is justified. Yet instances of DSD athletes prove that the biological line between male and female is hardly clear cut before we even start thinking about transgender athletes.
As Christine Aschwanden concludes, “how athletically outstanding can a girl or woman be before we no longer see her as female?” It’s also interesting that no one seems to be talking about the disadvantage trans men may face in men’s sports - there only seems to be outrage when there’s potential unfairness for cisgender athletes, but not vice versa.

Even if we don’t have enough research surrounding the potential competitive advantages of higher testosterone levels yet, surely science should only inform, not dictate, our legislation: surely empathy should come first.

Sports can be a lifesaver for transgender people, as it’s well-documented to help improve mental health; 89 per cent of trans young people have contemplated suicide, according to Stonewall.

The campaign of nonsense from high-profile athletes like Navratilova is nothing more than toxic misinformation, which is only adding fuel to the fire of insidious transphobia in our press.

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